Donal Lenihan opens up on how he dealt with losing two children

In his new book, the former Ireland international tells the fascinating story of his life in rugby

Donal Lenihan

Donal Lenihan ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Former Ireland rugby international Donal Lenihan has released a new autobiography, Donal Lenihan: My Life in Rugby, detailing stories and insights from his life and career, both on the pitch and as a co-commentator.

This week, he sat down with Off The Ball and discussed some of the moments he wrote about in the book.

Poignantly, he discussed the personal tragedies he endured.

"We lost a daughter. She was eight-and-half months old. She was born with a heart condition in 1984, and we always knew that she'd have to have an operation, but it was a question of when," he explained.

"Initially she was fine [after the operation] but there were complications and unfortunately she passed away. It was a very difficult time. That's why I'm always conscious, even in the professional era, players have lives outside of rugby and you never know what's going on in their private lives."

Six years later, Lenihan and his family unfortunately suffered another loss of a loved one.

"You mentioned Italia '90. We had a son who was born premature, and that famous day that everybody remembers - with Packie Bonner's brilliant save against Timofte against Romania - he was shifted hospitals on that particular night, and I got a phone call to say that he was in serious difficulty.

"I'll never forget driving in to the hospital. All the Irish fans had been out for the night and were walking home, the Irish flags waving and everything. Here I was heading to the hospital. It's an iconic moment in Irish sport. Everybody remembers David O'Leary and Packie Bonner. John passed away in the middle of that night.

"Every time I see that penalty shootout, it brings back completely different memories for me. But that's life.

"And that's why as I said, I'm always conscious with players - I've no problem saying about a fella 'if you don't perform, you don't perform' - but these are genuine people in behind it. Just because they're being paid to play, doesn't mean they don't have the stresses and issues that every family has."

Lenihan also told a number of other stories from the book and his life, including how his grandfather narrowly avoided being killed by the Black and Tans in the pre-Independence days, or how  renowned playwright John B Keane was a friend of his own father. He also discussed team culture in his time as a player, amid the backdrop of the Troubles.

In the light of how much the game has changed in recent years, Lenihan also opened up about what he sees as the most significant differences since he was a player.

Donal Lenihan ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

"The thing about rugby, it's a simple game on one hand a complex game in another," he said.

"The modern game is a far better game from a spectator's point of view. I always make the point that rugby in the amateur days was a player's game. The players who played it loved it. I met Gaelic footballers who tried rugby and played it for a couple of months and they loved it because you're involved in the game all the time. But it was a player's game; it wasn't always a fantastic spectacle.

"Now, to some degree, the ball is in play longer. But on the flipside, defences are so well organised now that the attacking side of the game - unless of course you're watching the All-Blacks play every Saturday - can be quite frustrating in that a lot of the teams play the exact same way. Defence is king. It's all about stopping the opposition play, rather than playing yourself. There are loads of people in rugby I know that find aspects of the modern game quite boring." 

He also believes rugby should go back to the days when there were five substitutes permitted.

"I think the fact that we now have eight substitutes adds to the whole area of being able to carry 23 and 24 stone replacements who only have the aerobic capacity to play for 20 minutes. They come onto the field in the last 10 minutes when your players are fatiguing. Then when the smaller player doesn't have his technique absolutely right - and that happens when you're tired - that's when you get wiped out.

"I think we should go back to the days when you had five substitutions," he said, adding that it could lead to teams opting to put more athletic subs on the bench.